Changes again at Ebbsfleet United, as after 5 years of ownership by the MyFootballClub Society they are to be sold to a Kuwaiti-based consortium. This should see Ebbsfleet’s ongoing financial troubles cleared, with a commitment to playing budget and ground development. This is good for both Club and Society and I hope both can find a path to prosperity.
As I explained in 2011 I was too busy and too tired to stay involved in the Society but have kept a casual eye on what’s been going on. Here are some thoughts on what went wrong, what went right, and what might happen next for Ebbsfleet and MyFootballClub.
When MyFC took over in 2008, Ebbsfleet had even larger debts, despite the high profile of the property developments in the Ebbsfleet Valley and the sponsorship of Eurostar (which was the reason they’d renamed from the historic Gravesend and Northfleet). These debts were pretty much cleared off in one go so there was huge potential to develop and sustain the club through the shared ownership mode. There were some early glories (Wembley!) and many situations where the Society made groundbreaking decisions and used their weight of numbers to get or fund what they wanted.
However, the realities and day-to-day mundaneness of football management clashed with the idealism and excitement, and it was a struggle to keep members interested. A large number were not interested in this specific club and had no further involvement. Others were adamant that the promise of “own the club, pick the team” should have been upheld, even as it was clear that the website operators weren’t interested in implementing a mechanism for this or pushing it through with the Head Coach. (and I don’t blame the club and Liam Daish for sticking by their guns).
Most football clubs run at a loss, funded by the whim of wealthy benefactors – that was where MyFC aimed to be different. A good deal of time was spent trying to analyse receipts and come up with some suitable ticket prices and packages, but the old attitude of “people won’t like this, we’ve always done it this way” meant that they were never implemented. For example, members voted for a free admission day for a cup match in January 2009, which quadrupled the average attendance, but also led to increased matchday spending. Despite the success, I don’t think this was ever repeated.
In the end, the financial model was unsustainable: the £800,000 fighting fund from the first 34,000 members was a one-off, the Society’s operating costs were pretty high and hiking the membership fee to £50 without offering any additional benefits did nothing to attract new members and retain wavering ones. This long-term financing was not made clear to the membership at the time of takeover and remained murky for a long while after.
The entire enterprise would have collapsed much earlier were it not for a lucky cup run and Wembley victory in the FA Trophy in 2008. Once this cash dried up, the pattern set in: constant appeals for cash from the members, causing further dissatisfaction. As far as I can see, it’s been the same ever since.
So what next?
For Ebbsfleet, an immediate cash injection, and future financial support that should be more than periodic scrabbling behind the sofa to pay the bills. The people in charge at the club will have to adjust to the new owner and accept their will. That didn’t always happen with MyFC as I said earlier.
Fundamentally they really have to throw something at the marketing, because regular attendance has always been low. That might reflects a lack of interest in the local community, who also have Gillingham and Charlton Athletic vying for their custom. Some improvements to the stadium may make the match day experience more attaractive but the ticket price also has to be acceptable for more than the hardcore, faithful fans.
MyFootball Club’s direction
As an Industrial and Provident Society, MyFootballClub has rules that govern what can happen with any funds and assets that are left from the sale of the club, and these define what can happen next. There is an excellent opportunity to regroup and relaunch, but the Society board need to move quickly to keep the interest of the existing members, as well bringing back some of those lapsed members.
After the announcement of the Ebbsfleet sale the other day, there was a positive response from my Facebook friends, who loved the MyFC concept but not how it was run and applied at the club. This article from November last year suggests that the board are bullish and the Society is healthy, but with very little publicity about the processes and decisions and how MyFC is working for the club these lapsed members can only go on their past experiences.
A new club?
Buying a new club again would be expensive, requiring someone to spend a lot of time negotiating with club directors, hire lawyers for financial due diligence. Any club that’s up for sale is likely to have debt problems, and even if these were cleared off satisfactorily (as was not the case with Ebbsfleet), there must be a clear benefit that the MyFC model can bring to the club.
I believe most of the problems with MyFootballClub and Ebbsfleet were not because of the concept of crowd ownership, but because the Society hadn’t had time to establish itself before takeover. The resulting lack the confidence and authority led to delays and obstacled between the members and the club. Before another club can even be considered, the Society needs to spend some time reorganising itself, establishing a clear management process for any new club or takeover.
In the mean time, the MyFootballClub website and community is itself a valuable asset, and could be used to post news articles and discuss issues relating to football finance, fan-run clubs and non-football crowdsourcing projects. This would attract web traffic (meaning the site was self-sustaining) and allow time to work out what the ultimate aim of the Society will be. MyFC can support struggling clubs by publicising their plight and marshalling local resources, e.g. ground clearance day, expertise sought on issues. This crowdsourcing was where MyFC worked best, and I think a lot of people would like to be a part of that again.
One of the big challenges in recent months has the issue of the home ground at Stonebridge Road. Currently leased for the next 16 years, it’s not really the most attractive sporting venue in the world, though the pitch is immaculate, maintained by the rapping groundsman, Peter Norton. The Club were looking at a new stadium before MyFootballClub took over, and discussions have continued since then.
These seemed to fall through in August when the local councils (Kent County and Gravesham Borough) and said they would not support a community stadium on the old A2 site. Following this blow, the freehold was put up for sale by the owners, Land Security, who also gave the club the opportunity to make an offer before the 21st Sept auction. A group of MyFC members, directors and other supporters of the club got together to raise the funds – not an insubstantial amount, somewhere between £400-600,000.
And that was going reasonably well until Gravesham Borough Council stepped in on the 17th September and bought the ground. This has changed the game again, as there are now two options:
1) Continue to raise the funds in order to buy the ground from the Council
2) Take up the offer of long-term, peppercorn rent
Learning to Juggle
Both have their good and bad points, but I feel that the Society Board members should not be pushing one argument over another, which has happened before and cause a lot of division. Instead they should be monitoring the debate, providing information where needed and pushing things through at the club on behalf of members. Despite the usual circular and emotive debate, thankfully both sides have been allowed to discuss the options.
As an organisation, we’re still struggling to deal with more than one item at a time, a shame as important issues are neglected whilst everyone’s energy is focused on the Big News. Again, this is something that I was hoping for from the new Board – to each take ownership of different areas and foster groups of members to deal with the issues and come back to the Society.
Good news in this regard is that the Operator is planning a revamp to the website which should make this more of a reality. This should also improve communications, allowing casual members to easily see what’s going on and feel involved. This is essential for maintaining and growing membership beyond the hardcore MyFootballClub fans and local Ebbsfleet fans.
Incidentally, funds for the ground purchase are still being raised by the new company, MyFootballGround. Going on what we’ve done before and the way the forum discussion’s been going, if the full amount isn’t reached MyFG will probably continue and become the company that develops the stadium. All quite exciting, whatever the outcome!
If you’re interested you can email 0800 334 5605 or e-mail Trustboard@myfootballclub.co.uk
In August, 20 candidates campaigned for seats on the MyFootballClub Society Board and the “lucky” 7 will direct the strategy over the next year, a critical role as the Society is the main financial support for Ebbsfleet United.
Despite being elected to represent the members of the Society, some of the previous Board members sermonised about their view of responsible ownership, actively opposing the open, community decision-making way of thinking that MyFootballClub was based on. In particular, this was seen in some of the more contentious issues during the year, such as the Club budget, membership fees and player sales.
The forum discussions about these decisions went on and on for dozens of pages, with very few new facts or analysis produced along the way. The more vocal contributors quickly dug in their heels and the casual members had no way of tracking the debate or main points. We still need something more than the forums in this regard, at the very least to get the main points summarised regularly.
I think one of the biggest factors in the state of anomie that sometimes seems to pervade the MyFC community is the lack of faith from the Board in the ability of the membership to make the right choices. Alice Casey describes this perfectly:
…decision makers don’t give enough credit to public wisdom and intelligence, the press consistently portray the public as being respondent, passive and powerless rather than active and influential, and people themselves do not feel able to influence decisions in their communities. These three have worked together to ensure that many citizens remain as passive consumers.
Of course for many members, MyFC is a luxury item, so the constant peril at Ebbsfleet is that if members are not engaged with the Club or if the cost is too high (bascially value for money), they can walk away. I don’t use the term “peril” lightly: as widely predicted, 20,000 members did not renew in February 2008. In the run up to that deadline the Board spent far too much time wringing their hands over this, rather than deal with the issues that were causing.
My view remains that the two most important roles for the Board are to build the community within the Society itself, and to implement mechanisms to inform and involve members in the activity of the Club.
Building a succesful internet community
I’m thinking along the lines of Slice the Pie or Zopa. I refer to these two specifically as they were also featured in Ivo Gormley’s film, “Us, Now” alongside MyFootballClub. Like MyFC, these organisations are set up in response to the failure of “real” institutions (like record companies and banks) for certain segments of those market.
They have a product which is easy for individual members to join, participate in, and contribute towards the development of the community. Because of this openness, they are sustainable and successful. It’s not the ownership that is the attractive thing about MyFC, it’s the participation.
Enabling members to collectively contribute
This means more than “give us your money, now f**k off”, which is sometimes how it can feel as MyFootballClub member. It means being open about the decisions that are being made, and that requires a philosophical change of attitude from the Club as well as the Board.
But the most urgent task for the new Board must be to sort out the communication between the Club and the Members, and maximise members involvement with decisions.
The election result:
The above was draft before the election but I didn’t post due to work things & holiday.
I’m a little bit disappointed that a couple of candidates with more technical and financial nous narrowly missed out, but the bad eggs either stood down or didn’t make it through nomination. They’re a reasonable crew, don’t agree with all of them all of the time, but that’s democracy for you.
In general they are starting well, and the new Chairman is also keen to improve communications. There have been a few big issues that have cropped up over the last couple of months that have served to rally people to the cause and bring cohesion to the organisation. But I’ll talk about them later.